When I Wait for a Cab in the Rain
Walking in Savannah With My Landscape Architect
Hospital With My Sister Visiting
Wisdom of the Grandmothers
Nice Girl Turns Mean at Spiritual Retreat
Tasha's Water Bowl
Their Last House on Earth
English as a Second Language
It’s lunchtime in August. I’m standing on the corner of Duane Street
waiting to Walk. Waiting to take my Italian friend, Valentina, to Odeon.
I want to see her eat an 18 dollar hamburger.
I want to introduce her to American mustard and potato salad.
I want her to get parsley stuck between her teeth.
To hear her ask for help.
To teach her new words.
I want her to be happy, bask
in hours of air-conditioning.
I’m sweating. Hazy sky muted yellow. Fancy work shirt sticks
to my back and it’s hard to breathe.
A garbage truck passes and its loud breeze cools me.
I shake out my shirt and fan my face.
I ask her to say garbage truck in Italian.
Anything sounds beautiful in Italian, I tell her.
Camion della spazzatura, she says.
I roll the words around in my head.
Truck of trash, and remember.
I want my father back.
To hear him utter garbage truck in French. In Yiddish.
The Latin meaning: derivative.
My father spoke four languages fluently. But never Italian.
He’d add o’s to the endings of English words
and call it a day. Garbago de trucko, he’d say.
I want to hear him tell me another story.
How life in Tribeca was small then:
1942 and the Bronx Bombers had just lost the Series
and the grocer tossed him an apple each day on the way to school.
And were the streets uneven? Did he help his mother?
Cup her elbow in his hand to keep her from tripping in high heels?
I am not hungry anymore. I am waiting
for a table on West Broadway and it’s blurry and my eyes are sad.
I hear laughter from the bar. It muffles inside me.
I turn to Valentina and ask her to say two more words.
Ma dai, she pleads. Come on. I bite my lip.
How do you say, history?
How do you say, gone?
“Italian Lesson” appeared in Lumina (2004), where it won First Place in the 2004 Poetry Contest, judged by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins.
it’s the sound of a snare drum I love.
Water beads bounce and land
on the tops of air-conditioners.
It’s earth’s wish for water,
filling dry cracks
on soil and pavement.
Tulip bulbs, seedlings, tree roots
and the birds at my feeder
have learned how to drink.
We all know about parched things.
Cars splash through puddles;
sometimes our feet get drenched.
O, let this ground around us fill.
Let no one ever go thirsty again.
“When I Wait for a Cab in the Rain” first appeared in Eclipse (2005).
It now appears on Eric Kent Wine Cellars's 2007 Freestone Pinot Noir wine label.
I pull up the covers of my bedspread,
adjust pillows, spray them
with lavender and geranium,
smells of a harbor on Monhegan.
The door is open, and the window,
and I leave them that way.
A breeze blows through my curtains.
Outside, leaves from a Bottlebrush Buckeye
fall to the pavement.
“Morning Ritual” appeared in Lumina (2005).
Daffodils unfurled, yellow signs
of rebirth bursting through
green shoots. I noticed and pointed
to the Spanish moss, impatiens
and begonias, walled gardens
of clivia and ivy.
If I always admire the weeping
willows, magnolia trees and live oaks,
I will live forever.
Everything reaches for warmth,
I whispered once,
leaning my head on his shoulder.
“Walking in Savannah With My Landscape Architect” appeared in Watershed (2006).
How the hermit crab,
carried from stone to stone,
with the current she is given.
She knows what I know:
when to wait for stillness,
then stretch and scurry.
She can find new shelter in
driftwood and empty conches.
I wriggle my toes for warmth
and hear the thrumming
of pebbles drenched in attention
before the tide retreats.
We all wear our homes on our backs.
“Low Tide” appeared in Oberon (2006).
It isn’t the IV line or me
at the window feeling winter at my fingers.
It isn’t the heart monitors beeping,
or vomit, bedpans, ammonia,
but the light out there – genuine
light and a large maple tree
moving in the wind.
It’s the shining of sun on certain patches
of bark harkening: orange and gold.
A white plastic bag, clean and empty,
blows across my window,
flutters from limb to limb
until it hooks a high branch
and stays put
while its body floats and fills.
I touch my swollen and throbbing face.
See, Sarah? Things hold.
“Hospital With My Sister Visiting” appeared in Illuminations, an anthology published by Celestial Arts, an imprint of Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California (2006).
At a fruit stand, I’m trying to examine a pomegranate: ripe or rotten? And I want to call my dad and ask him to explain everything, all over again. Ask him where periwinkles come from. His hands cupping my five-year-old face. Let’s go find their mothers and fathers. At ten, how to clean the paintbrushes so the bristles won’t fray. I sniff the pomegranate for sweetness, freshness. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. All I really want is to make that new salad I saw on a cooking show last week. The one with a pomegranate, arugula, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and shredded dried ricotta. He’d know the difference in texture between dried ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I listen for the pit’s rattle. But he said to shake the avocado. I drop it back into its heaping pile and fish for one that isn’t too soft. A clear, red pomegranate without mold or bruises. I close my eyes and hear my dad explaining, pick before overly ripe, before they crack open, especially if they’ve been rained on. The chef on TV said to warm the fruit by rolling it between your hands to soften the insides, to ready the juice of the seeds.
“Pomegranate” appeared in Gastronomica (2007), where it was nominated for the 2007 Pushcart Prize in Poetry.
I used to steal bras from Bloomingdale’s
where real women shopped: lip-sticked,
high-heeled grown-ups in suits searching
for perfection. Red silk and satin C-cup push-ups,
mesh and black and slutty bustiers.
Before sensors and tags, security guards and guilt,
I piled two or three onto my virgin breasts,
putting my old bra on top, shirt and jean jacket
back on, walking out the revolving glass doors.
I didn’t mind the generic cotton ones
Mom bought at Carter’s: good girls
wore them happily without complaining,
because sixty-dollar price tags and fancy
French labels waited for me in secret at midnight.
While all of suburbia slept in the dark,
I went to my shoebox at the bottom
of my closet and played bad-girl dress-up
in front of my mirror. Everybody,
get up and do your thing, I sang
like Madonna, rubbing my nipples
till they peeked through the lace.
“Fifteen” appeared in The Paterson Literary Review (2007), where it was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2006 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize.
Sitting here at the table, Café Sha Sha, a May Sunday on Hudson Street, I feel the rain beginning. Sounds of silverware scooped up in one hand, waiters squabbling, a soup ladle chiming against the side of a pot. One Sunday 17 years ago, I sat with Beth in her car, stopped at a traffic light, hot vinyl burning through my short shorts, halter top stuck to the back of my seat. I wiped off my upper lip and reapplied thick pink lip gloss, snapped my watermelon bubble gum hard, and boosted the cigarette from Beth’s mouth for a long drag. And so, green light go, she accelerated and I made my smoke rings disappear. Feathered wings of my hair blew high. We started to sing Like a Virgin, and sped off to watch the local college football practice. I hung my feet out the window so the cotton-candy color of my toes could attract any suitor. Love’s Baby Soft so strong, every boy in the parking lot could smell it. I could make out the raised seams of jock straps through the tight maroon and gold-eagled uniforms as their cleats marched in unison toward the field. Their eye contact, a whistle or a thump on the hood of our car, and I hit my pose – tossed hair and head tilted back Charlie’s Angels style. There’s a kegger tomorrow night at Bowman Hall, one of them said to us. Now, rain on Hudson Street and we are grown-ups. Beth is married, drenched in desire, pregnant with son, husband massaging her swollen feet. And I am single, still remembering a car radio in the distance and its lustrous orange glowing neon light at night.
“Being Single” appeared in The Paterson Literary Review (2007), where it was awarded Editor’s Choice in the 2006 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize.
My German Catholic grandmother taught me it’s easy to raise seven children in a house with one bathroom if you assign each child a different color – blue toothbrush, blue towel, blue washcloth. Here are some of her adages: always have rental properties for extra income in case your husband’s oil company goes belly-up. Add red and white vinegar to a three-bean salad for extra kick. Collect Haviland China. Tend to your dying husband but don’t forget your charity work – serve as president of your local Red Cross chapter. Keep your neck warm in winter. Ignore the Nazi flag hanging in the garage of your older sister Wilma. Inscribe Jesus was a Hebrew on a candelabra (one that could pass for a menorah) and give it to your new granddaughter, Meghan, the half-Jew, when she is born.
My Polish Jewish grandmother taught me not to ask for public assistance when your husband dies and you are poor. Instead, have your seven-year-old son help you deliver dry goods on the weekends. Mix farmer cheese, pot cheese, sour cream and plain yogurt for breakfast because calcium will make you grow. Always wear lipstick. Keep your nails long and paint them Revlon Red. Go to night school and learn English after working twelve hours a day mending wedding veil lace on the Lower East Side. It’s important to look your best – even if only shopping for oranges. Best foot forward regardless of immigrant challenges and schooling back in the old country for only six years. You don’t want to be called a Greenhorn. Let your son leave Brooklyn. And never forgive your daughter-in-law for divorcing him.
“Wisdom of the Grandmothers” appeared in The North American Review (2008).
There are no facts, only interpretations.
Does he remember? The steep hills of Eze, slow
walks on cobblestones past high walls, narrow
roadways lined in red bricks surrounding
the medieval village. A small church perched
on a narrow rocky peak overlooking the Mediterranean.
Some say Nietzsche composed the last part
of Thus Spoke Zarathustra over 100 years ago under
the olive and pine trees along Jardin Exotique Panorama.
Four hundred meters from the sea, boutiques hide in tiny caves
filled with candied tangerines, lavender soap, bergamot
perfume. A stand selling fresh figs, dates, rosemary,
tarragon and thyme, the smell of lemons filling the sea air
as carob trees block the hot sun.
Or does he just remember the essentials,
what he thought we needed to carry that afternoon?
Clutching one baguette, a local bottle of Bandol –
the Romans who seeded the first vineyards 2,500 years ago –
a wedge of mountain milk cheese. And she, holding
a map close to her chest, Badoit water, bottled in
St. Galmier since 1883, the guidebooks, the knife.
“Provisions” appeared in The North American Review (2008).
Cheek pressed against the cordless phone, I picture
my mother in her Savannah kitchen, leaning
both elbows on the glass breakfast table as she asks
if I can send her 50 newly minted 2007 pennies.
It’s 8:30 p.m. and she wants to give them out to mark
her one-year anniversary of being sober. I can hear
the emery board filing her nails in the background.
For 20 years, I knew not to call after six. Questions asked,
stories shared before the slur of words, Merlot numbing
her senses. Now, she asks how my breakup is going.
I tell her I walked the Golden Gate Bridge. On the other
side, I threw out love letters, photographs, lingerie,
baseball caps and ticket stubs. A cool gust of air
blows the Chronicle off the table. I adjust the phone
and push down each cuticle until I can see the half moons.
My mother is silent and I know she is crying.
I hear her shift as she tells me how she said good-bye
to my father when they divorced. Alone at Gooseberry Beach,
she made nine sand castles at low tide. Each one represented
a house they’d renovated together, from frames to foundations –
homes they’d dreamed of happily living in one day.
She sat for hours until high tide washed them all away.
Do you think you can find those pennies? She asks again.
I live behind the Mint, I tell her. We laugh.
My mother's mother taught her always to pick up a penny.
Bring luck inside. I agree with Grandma Shea. I will visit
every bank in the city to find those newly minted pennies.
I have waited a lifetime to talk with my mother after six,
like this, listening to each other through miles of cable
buried under the soil late into the evening.
“After Six” appeared in Rattle (2008), where it was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2008 Rattle Poetry Contest.
It’s the fourth night in a row that my bunkmate Blondie, newly divorced with a lavender eye patch, is snoring. Our bunk bed’s shaking. She rolls over occasionally to cough and I think: Great. Fucking great. Her snoring will stop, but no, it doesn’t, and I feel guilty since she has asthma, lungs constricted, chest heavy and wheezing, her meds and inhalers all lined up on the windowsill like Adirondack chairs. It's 2:07 a.m. Now, 5:11 a.m. and the moon and sun are meeting halfway to weep at my ruinous sleep. My makeshift toilet paper ear plug wads are beginning to fall out. Blondie’s here for some group-therapy-cry-and-hug-type thing. Fuck. It feels like it’s the end of the world. Full-time teaching begins in two weeks, and I have poems to write and miles to go before I sleep, and would you believe it? Suddenly, the other roomie, who’s stunk up the cabin with her PABA-free Hopi tourist sunblock joins in the snorefest – emphatically answering her back. Look, I’ve been to camp with Quakers and Unitarians. I learned to swim naked twenty-five years ago. Bush-whacked up the backside of Mt. Snow. Was named like an Indian, Beaver Who Laughs With Pride, and shat in an outhouse for eight weeks. So after I imagine taking this 100% hemp pillow and smothering Blondie and Roomie, and after I’ve written a few good poems, I’ll do community work in the garden. God help me. I swear on a stack of bibles as tall as the Sears Tower in Chi-town. I’ll nourish compost with browned petals. I’ll pick the rotting sunflowers. I’ll weed weeds and find a yurt by the ocean like the Inuit nomads and pray. Really pray. Get down on my knees and beg for forgiveness. I will water the wilted sage and look for dried-up zucchinis until I’m up to my elbows, like the damned, forever in dirt.
“Nice Girl Turns Mean at Spiritual Retreat” appeared in The Comstock Review (2009), where it was a finalist in the 2008 Muriel Craft Bailey Award Contest.
I fill her bowl with
salad grown in the soil where
her spirit still rests.
When my parents were moving a few years back, they found Tasha's stainless steel water bowl. It was mixed in with the old kitchen bowls that were going to be donated to Goodwill, but luckily Tasha's name was marked on the bottom in black permanent marker. I love that my parents saved the bowl for so many years. I love that they gave it to me. I love that now I serve salad in her water bowl, remembering her as I fill myself and my friends with fresh vegetables.
"Tasha's Water Bowl" appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle (May 6, 2009). Read it here.
When my first grade teacher asked
what was the first thing I should do
when moving into a new home,
I told her, “Knock down the walls.”
Installing toilets, sanding floors, stripping paint
and varnish – primed and ready to refurbish
the Victorians from the ground up – my mother and father
worked together then, in the eddying
final days of their marriage, preserving the abandoned
fixer-uppers, unfinished lots and driveways
of Newport’s historic houses on the Point.
Saving cantilevered upper stories
the way they couldn’t themselves anymore,
they dropped rusted nails
into the bounty of a Savarin coffee can.
Back and forth, making trips to empty the remains –
history’s proof of what was unsturdy.
Aging roofs, beams and shingles incapable
of holding their own weight.
I watched in silence: sunburned backs, stained fingernails,
and my parents’ white sneakers blackening like fish –
salvaging what beauty they could from the earth.
“Their Last House on Earth” appeared in The Ledge (2010).
Legend from Aunt Yetta had it that after my father proposed,
he took my mother to see Woody Allen’s Annie Hall
and said to her: This is the story of my life. Are you sure
you want to marry me? Yes, she insisted, tossing her
clichéd long red hair, seated in her ‘67 Mustang convertible,
as she drove the New-Yorker-without-a-license home. Yes.
Despite being raised in more than two rooms, schooled by nuns,
not knowing about pot cheese and New Jersey, the difference
between sturgeon and lox and what it meant to take the El.
I don’t care if you lived underneath a rollercoaster, or whether
you’re a Jew, my mother told him later over marbled cheesecake.
But in Googling my father’s favorite movie after he died,
I realized it premiered ten years after they married, and two years
before they divorced. This is like finding out that Columbus
never set sail, or maybe it’s almost as shocking as when your twin
sister called you Chink-eyes – more almond-shaped than hers – at seven.
You were adopted from an orphanage in China, she insisted.
I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics,
Woody’s character said in another one of his films of the 70’s.
Oh, I used to believe everything anyone told me.
“False Prenup” appeared in The Ledge (2010).
Loma Prieta tribute specials are all over the news.
Flashbacks of a bridge almost fallen and three-story
apartment buildings crumbled like the sides
of the gingerbread houses I made every Christmas
with my mother; laden with heaps of icing,
purple spice gumdrops and candy canes.
I am reminded to recheck the emergency car kit:
one dozen water bottles, first aid supplies,
five pull-top cans of Chef Boyardee raviolis, flashlight
with four C batteries, towels, duct tape, sneakers.
The heaviness of everything in its blue canvas sack,
like the bricks I used in the trunk when commuting
on the slippery Long Island Expressway in snow,
as if we might ward off danger with weight.
“Talismans” was a winner in the Poets 11 2010 Poetry Contest, sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library and judged by Poet-in-Residence Jack Hirschman.
For Roberto, Age 10
So what if he hasn’t matriculated from reading class yet,
can’t hear the difference between mile and mild
or a diphthong from a digraph,
has no sister or brother to help him with homework.
Roberto has worn socks and shoes for only three years
and still speaks about the stray dogs he had
and the grandmother he called Mamá.
Still, he smiles because school breakfast and lunch are free
and there’s always extra butter for pancakes
and as much bread as he dreams of eating.
His dirt floor’s been replaced with pine.
Erasers glow in the dark and here,
All Spanish people wear shoes.
In the hallway, when his new American friends
ask nonchalantly where he hails from,
he tells them about crossing the border with an uncle,
about listening for footsteps in high grass,
spotlights and flashlights of the policía
making it hard for him to see Orion,
about meeting his mother for the first time:
I thought she was a lady representing my mother.
Soon it will be Halloween
and Roberto hasn’t chosen a costume yet.
Maybe he’s a football player, he tells his friends
one morning on the way to art class.
But not a devil, he says to Ariella,
putting his small hand up like a stop sign.
I never wanna see the devil again.
“English as a Second Language” was a winner in the Poets 11 2010 Poetry Contest, sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library and judged by Poet-in-Residence Jack Hirschman.
Turin, Italy, 1992
After dinner, Mamma fed the 16-year-old parrot,
serving him pesto e gnocchi on a white cocktail napkin.
Loreto ate with his beak and claws inside his cage,
yelling Ciao, Ciao between mouthfuls.
Papá in the living room poked at the fire
to make the flames stronger for the chestnuts,
then watched his soccer team triumph on the TV.
Forza, Juventus. Gol!
Away from home, I was a guest
and wasn’t allowed to help.
I could sit in silence as my Italian mother
glanced over her right shoulder
to see if I wanted more
biscotti, acqua minerale.
Valentina, Cristina, and I sat drinking espresso
and leaned toward each other on elbows.
We stirred our white porcelain cups,
metal spoons clanking like lost cowbells
as Mamma rinsed the dishes.
Loading the Miele, she sang something
off-key and beautiful:
Good night, between the sea and the rain,
between your snowflakes and tea leaves.
Blue-flowered tablecloth scattered with sugar
and me, picking up each sweet crystal,
licking my fingers, one at a time.
“Dopo Cena” appeared in Alimentum (2010).